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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-46 – COL Everett S. P. Spain, COL Katie E. Matthew, and COL Andrew L. Hagemaster – Why Do Senior Officers Sometimes Fail in Character? The Leaky Character Reservoir

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-46 – COL Everett S. P. Spain, COL Katie E. Matthew, and COL Andrew L. Hagemaster – Why Do Senior Officers Sometimes Fail in Character? The Leaky Character Reservoir

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    In this episode, the authors argue senior officers may fail in character because their rate of character development throughout their careers typically decreases as environmental stressors rise. They conceptualize character as an open system with both gains and leaks over time and integrate existing scholarship on personality and ethical development to create the Leaky Character Reservoir framework and then explain how it applies to Army officers’ careers. Military leaders will gain a new understanding of character and find specific actions officers, units, and the US Army can undertake to strengthen the character of its senior officers.

    Read the article:

    Episode transcript: Why Do Senior Officers Sometimes Fail in Character? The Leaky Character Reservoir
    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    You’re listening to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production focused on national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Colonels Everett S.P. Spain, Katie Matthews, and Andrew L. Hagemaster, authors of “Why Do Senior Officers Sometimes Fail in Character? The Leaky Character Reservoir.” Spain is the head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy. Matthew is an Academy professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy. Hagemaster is a clinical aeromedical and operational psychologist in the Army.

    Thank you for joining me today. I’m really excited to talk to you. Your article argues senior officers may fail in character because their rate of character development throughout their careers typically decreases as environmental stressors rise. Give us some background and maybe an example or two of failed character.

    Everett Spain

    Thanks, Stephanie. This is Everett Spain. So, this started when I was helping with the Battalion Commander Assessment Program at Fort Knox a few years ago—maybe three years ago—and a friend and colleague of mine from the surge in Iraq from 2007–08 days was Major General Matt McFarland. At the time of the conversation (he) was commander of 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, and he invited me to lunch. After we caught up a little bit personally, he said, “Hey, there’s something I’ve been wondering (that) I’d like your thoughts on.”

    I said, “What’s that, sir?”

    He said, “Well, I’ve noticed that back in World War I and World War Two, a lot of senior officers were getting relieved due to lack of battlefield competence directly related to leadership or their tactical abilities.”

    He said, “But now all the reliefs I see of senior officers is due to character. Do you know what’s going on?”

    And so we talked about it back and forth a little bit. And we flowed some hypotheses. But in the end, I said, “Hey, sir. Let me look at this a little bit and see if I can engage some of my teammates and circle back to you with a more thoughtful perspective.”

    So when I got back to West Point, I queried my faculty for anyone who was interested in diving into this with me. Colonel Katie Matthew raised her hand. I think her quote was “put me in coach.” And Col. Andrew Hagemaster volunteered, as he always does, as a great teammate. And so, over the last few years, we looked into this from a variety of perspectives. And what we kind of discovered is a new way to look at character, for all of us—since we’re probably considered senior officers as well—is that character is not a permanent gain. When you have character, there are losses as well. And the bottom line that we’ll talk about a little bit more throughout this podcast is that we’d better increase our rate of character inputs faster than our rate of character losses is going. And that’s the leaky character reservoir. And the theory behind it is to build up our character faster than it’s leaking.


    What are the four drivers of potential character?

    Andrew Hagemaster

    This is Andrew Hagemaster. We identified four drivers of potential character. The first is heredity and experiences growing up. The second is the Army’s deliberate character development. The third is the environmental influences of Army life, and the fourth is ethical fading or erosion.

    The first driver of character is heredity and experiences growing up. Our character and personality are the results of the combination of our genetics and the experiences we have growing up, particularly across early childhood development. A lot of us have seen this in our own children—raised in the same household but often have different personalities. The interaction of heredity and experiences also help explain differences in personality traits, including extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. But when we consider character, additional personality traits come into play, including resilience, judgement, perseverance, and integrity.

    The second driver of character is the Army’s deliberate character development found across Officer Education School, starting with our commissioning sources and continuing through the Officer Basic Course, Career Course, and Senior Service College. We looked at deliberate character development in terms of hours of education where character is the primary learning objective and the curriculum is testable through papers, exams, or exercises. We were really stringent in this criteria as some schools incorporate character as a secondary learning objective that is woven throughout the curriculum. The same can be said of the core psychology and leadership course that I taught at West Point. Even though our determined goal is to produce leaders of character through each lesson, not all lessons met that strict criteria as having character as primary learning objectives. And, generally, we found in our research that the trend is that officers receive less character education over time throughout an officer’s career.

    The third driver of character is Army life’s environmental influences. We talked earlier about how our personality is formed during our childhood while our environment continues to influence us as adults, particularly with character-related behaviors, and that we’ve all been part of organizations that encourage us to be better each day, and some that led us to just focus on surviving. Environmental influences include the climate of the organization set by the supervisors, peers, and even subordinates.

    The fourth driver of character is ethical fading or erosion. Our ethical standards may drift over time. Small deviations from our ethical azimuth can go unnoticed by officers, especially during times of stress. And so that’s why we need supervisors and peers that know our baseline and can challenge us to be our best.


    Everett mentioned something a few minutes ago about the leaky character reservoir. I’d like to circle back to that. What is the leaky character reservoir?

    Katie Matthew

    Hi Stephanie, Katie Matthew here. So the leaky character reservoir stems from our idea that if character can have gains, it can, in theory, have losses. In our paper, we actually diagram this out (on page 130). It’s a metaphorical reservoir that you build up and basically store up through your personal experiences and growth, through training, through your experience in communities both in and out of the Army. But they’re stored up for future use when needed. Hence why our officer education system is structured the way it is to build up early on. But as a reservoir, leaks are going to be present. That’s just something to accept about life. And the potential to lose some of that character exists for all of us through some of those drivers that Andrew mentioned, that ethical fading, erosion, and then the stresses can all potentially drain on those resources.

    So if at any time the level in the reservoir dips below the demand signal to do the right thing, we expect that is when a failure in character and/or unethical behavior will occur due to that gap or shortage. In simple terms, it’s not having enough in the tank when you need it.

    Those drivers that Andrew was talking about work both ways. Some add to our reservoirs, and others don’t. Some are deliberate character development, both personally and through organizations in our units. And much of our experiences, both with our units and communities, can bolster that reservoir or start to let some of that fade out. The leaks are present, and our argument is that the goal should be to maintain our character as we do our physical readiness. And for the Army, that’s daily, deliberate, and an investment by the individual and the organization to continue to keep that level in the reservoir up above the needs.


    You recommend in your article some mechanisms to increase deliberate character conditioning and mitigate character losses. What are they?


    One of the mechanisms to increase deliberate character conditioning and to mitigate character loss is requiring mid-grade and senior officers to engage in deliberate self-reflection. This deliberate self-reflection is designed to examine our character strengths, vulnerabilities, and risk. This is currently happening as part of the four-day selection process with the Command Assessment Program, where candidates for battalion and brigade command are encouraged to engage in deliberate self-reflection. And this is built into the Command Assessment Program assigned by the Army Talent Management Task Force. Candidates take their self-reflection notes over several days, and they meet with an operational psychologist at the end. They both discuss the candidate’s personality, self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, and potential areas of unproductive leadership behaviors. It’s not just about the candidate as an officer, it’s also about how the candidate is gonna influence others as a leader and the next level of the organization.

    And what I like about this is that specific, actionable items can come out of these discussions that encourage officers to build on their strengths and mitigate their character leaks. The outcome of this deliberate self-reflection is that we’ll have officers who are more aware of their strengths, vulnerabilities, and areas of risk. And this awareness and purposeful conversation can help senior leaders to withstand ethical stressors.

    I met with many leaders during the feedback process at the Command Assessment Program. And for many, it was the first time they’d even heard of some of their vulnerabilities. Other leaders that came from organizations that engaged in this deliberate self-reflection that we’re talking about were already aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities, and they were able to discuss in-depth how they’re mitigating their character leaks as a regular process. These conversations can also happen at the brigade level. Brigade commanders can have their brigade psychologists meet with their battalion and company commanders to help them engage in deliberate self-reflection that’s designed to identify their character strengths, vulnerabilities, and strategies to become more aware and an effective leader.


    One of the other things that we recommended is these peer accountability groups. And this is going off of those same things that you learn about your strengths and weaknesses at BCAP and CCAP. As a battalion commander, I was in a stand-alone assignment and was fortunate enough to unofficially have a peer accountability partner—a fellow logistician in another unit where we could just sit and relax, have meals together, and watch each other’s backs, keep those checks and balances and be able to have that honest conversation that isn’t related to the fact that we’re in the same unit. Taking that experience and what we’re seeing happening already through those assessment programs that Andrew was discussing, we’d like to see that made more official, where those partners and those groups are built during those assessment programs so that you have long-term accountability partners throughout your career and command as a senior officer. Someone who can tell when you’re starting to fade, when things are not quite right with you, and can call you out on it. We also suggest that those groups not only have those regular forced conversations, but that there’s a coach, an actual Army coach, associated with those groups so that they can continue to build each other up, but also catch each other when there’s a potential for failure on that one, rather than waiting for that tank to dip below the need.


    I’ve got one to add from the perspective of the character driver Army life and the environment that officers kind of live and operate in. When battalion commanders are selected for command and they complete their command, they go into a series of years of what a couple of my friends call “the five years of pain.” And I said, “what do you mean? Say more.”

    They said, “Well, Everett, the problem is, you could have three or four one-year PCS (permanent change of station) moves following battalion command. And, also, you’re restricted to a series of jobs that are usually pretty intense called ‘former battalion commander jobs,’ so you have a little less say in where you’re going as well.”

    One of those years might be a war college, but you don’t know which one, and you don’t find out until three or four months before you get assigned there. And this is all happening at the same time you have high school-age children that it’s a little more sensitive to have some stability for and spouses that oftentimes have non-transferable certifications for their profession. So, it’s really just a challenging time in an Army officer’s life, and in their family’s lives, specifically. And they have the most unpredictability then. So, one way to reduce environmental stressors would be for principal selects at battalion command after the Battalion Command Assessment Program. For all of them, let them lock in at least three of their next four or five years. Let them pick their war college date and location. Let them pick their follow-on assignment. Maybe we line up all the ROTC battalions as possibilities. Of course, some of them enjoy the dynamic process of a different assignment every year or two, but most leaders I know would like to lock that stuff in early, thereby reducing the stress on their families. So, that’s one way to reduce the environmental stressors on these officers and make some of those leaks of character a little less during this time.


    Any final thoughts?


    President Truman said, “To be able to lead others, a man must be willing to go forward alone.” And while we know that leadership can be lonely, it doesn’t have to be. I regularly talk with senior leaders about mentorship, and I’ve had several senior officers tell me that while they engage in mentoring others, they themselves don’t have a mentor anymore as a senior leader. It was surprising at first because we always can benefit from having a mentor and being a mentor to others. So, I encourage everyone to seek mentorship, regardless of how senior you are as an officer, and develop peer relationships that help fill your character reservoir, and minimize our character leaks.

    Thank you.


    Just off of that is not only just the not going it alone but actually investing in each other in our units at the get-go. But more importantly, as senior leaders, we tend to really focus down. We want to set them up for success and recognize that it’s looking to our left and right and continuing to set each other up for success. Because we didn’t get to that position without the help of each other. And sometimes that help is calling each other out. Sometimes that help is just saying, “hey, what a great job you’re doing.”


    One last perspective to kind of summarize all of this is a friend of mine; when I shared this on social media (the article), one of them wrote, “I know why senior officers are occasionally failing in character. It’s because they’re human.”

    And Katie and Andrew and I couldn’t agree more. The concept of being human is reflected in the open system of the character reservoir. Our argument is “hey, let’s make sure we’re putting in more deliberately than is leaking out, because if we don’t tend to that then we might not have what we need when we need it.”

    My son Josiah, is a Second Lieutenant. He was commissioned recently, and when he read a draft of the article, he said, “Hey, Dad, that’s simple. Your whole paper should be about one page.”

    I was like, “Why is that?”

    He said, “Well, inputs have to be greater than outputs or leaks. That’s it. That’s it with character. It’s simple.

    I said, “Thanks, son. Couldn’t agree more.”


    I love it.


    I’d add just, Stephanie, thank you for interviewing us today. Thank you to listeners for caring about character development—for caring about our Army. And let’s work on this together. Myself and Katie and Andrew would all argue none of us have perfect character, and we all have situations where we need each other’s help. So, let’s organizationally and interpersonally work on this together. And thank you all for investing in my character as well.


    Thank you all so much. This is such a treat to talk with you, especially on such an interesting topic.

    To learn more about why officers fail and the leaky character reservoir, read the article at Look for volume 52 issue 4. The authors are interested in your feedback.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, you can find us on any major podcast platform.

    About the Authors: Colonel Everett S. P. Spain, US Army, is the head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy. He has served with the 82nd Airborne Division, US Army Europe, and US Army Special Operations Command. He holds a bachelor of science degree from the United States Military Academy and a DBA from Harvard University.

    Colonel Katie E. Matthew, US Army, is an academy professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy. She has served as a logistician at home and on deployment with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, 1st Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and Joint Special Operations Command, and most recently commanded the Brigade Special Troops Battalion and Camp Buehring, US Army Central. She holds a bachelor of science degree from the United States Military Academy, a master of business administration degree from Kansas State University, and a PhD in sociology from George Mason University.

    Colonel Andrew L. Hagemaster, US Army, is a clinical, aeromedical, and operational psychologist in the Army. He is a consultant for senior military leaders on behavioral health and leader development. At the United States Military Academy, he served as the director of the General Psychology for Leaders Course in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, installation director of psychological health, and residency director of training. He has served with the 25th Infantry Division, the 1st Infantry Division, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and multinational force and observers. He holds a master of arts degree from Reformed Theological Seminary and a PhD from Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.



    Date Taken: 01.20.2023
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:08
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74960
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718223.mp3
    Length: 00:15:20
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 46
    Year 2023
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

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